The Next Day
This was the first thought to come to Harry's mind upon waking from what seemed like his longest sleep ever. It's finally over, he thought. He looked around the room that Sirius used to sleep in, and for some reason he felt more out of place than he had ever felt there. The pictures and banners that had so annoyed Sirius's parents reflected agreeable sentiments, but they weren't his. It only seemed to emphasize that he had never really had a home. Hogwarts had been the closest thing to it, and there was the Burrow, but there had been no place that he knew was his, and always would be.
What am I going to do now?
He wanted to banish the thought as soon as he had it. I'm not going to think about that right now, he answered himself. He felt as though he wanted to sleep more, but he knew he had already slept far more than long enough.
He'd originally intended to sleep in his Gryffindor dormitory in the late morning after Voldemort's defeat; after talking to Dumbledore's portrait, he decided not to put the Cloak back on to walk through the castle. After all, he couldn't constantly walk around wearing it. However, after being intercepted by more than a dozen students on the way, he decided he would never get enough peace to sleep, and went to Grimmauld Place instead. He had felt as though celebrating was in order, but he had been too tired to celebrate, and too sad about the losses they had suffered. Now, however, he felt a wave of elation as it dawned on him for the first time that his scar would never hurt again. Somehow that seemed more important than the fact that wizarding society would be free of Voldemort's influence. Even though he knew it was a selfish thing to think, he couldn't help feeling it.
Yet despite the happiness, there was an unease, a feeling of things not being right, as if the mildest possible form of a dementor hovered over him. He could think of no reason for it. He was still pained at the thought of the deaths of Remus, Tonks, and Fred, but this was different from that. Somehow he didn't belong. He tried not to focus on this thought either. You've been through a lot, he told himself; maybe it'll just take some time to get used to things. He had, after all, not slept in a proper bed for a very long time.
I'd better get up, he thought. Can't lie in bed all day.
After a trip to the bathroom, he headed down to the kitchen; his stomach reminded him that he hadn't eaten for quite a while. As he walked, he thought about whether he should summon Kreacher if he wasn't already there. He wondered how he felt about having a house-elf, especially that particular one. Kreacher had been of great service, but it was never far from Harry's mind that Kreacher had had no small part in Sirius's death. He then reminded himself again that Sirius had treated Kreacher quite badly, and he had learned from his own experience that house-elves responded well to kind treatment. Not that Sirius deserved to be betrayed, but maybe Dumbledore was right, that Sirius should have treated Kreacher better. As he entered the kitchen, it occurred to him that it was very ironic that in Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts, Sirius had said that it was the mark of a man how well he treated those lower than him, and yet with Kreacher, he had more or less failed his own test. Harry supposed that Sirius's antagonism toward Kreacher was one of habit, and habits were hard to break…
His train of thought derailed as he saw not Kreacher as he might have expected, but Kingsley Shacklebolt reaching into the refrigerator. "Kingsley?" he gasped.
"Morning, Harry," said Kingsley casually. "Food'll be ready in a bit. Sit down, I brought a Prophet. Few things in there about you. I know you don't like publicity, but at least it's better than it has been in the past." He busied himself cracking eggs into a bowl. Bacon and sausage were cooking on a grill, and a loaf of bread was on the counter. Stupefied, Harry found that his sense of being out of place had greatly increased.
He said the only thing he could think of. "What are you doing here?"
"Making breakfast," replied Kingsley, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. "Aren't you hungry?"
"Well, yes, but…" He felt mildly annoyed as he realized that Kingsley had diverted him from his point. "You know what I mean. Aren't you the Minister of Magic now?"
Kingsley tilted his head as if surprised that Harry had mentioned it. "Must be, I think it's in the Prophet there. Have a read. Oh, do you like onions in your omelets?"
"Um…" Still very disoriented, Harry took so long to answer that the next thing he noticed was Kingsley looking at him expectantly, indicating that he couldn't proceed with his cooking until he had Harry's answer. "Sure, OK." Kingsley nodded, and started chopping an onion.
Harry looked down at the Prophet. The large, bold headline read, 'Potter Victorious,' and the sub-headline, 'Defeats, Kills You-Know-Who.' Still mystified at what Kingsley was up to, the headline annoyed him enough to ignore it for a moment. "You-Know-Who?" he repeated aloud. "He's dead! They can't say his damn name even when he's dead?"
Kingsley chuckled in agreement. "I thought that too," he said, pouring the omelet mixture into a pan. "But you have to keep in mind that he died before, or so it seemed, but he came back. There are some people who aren't going to easily accept that he won't come back again."
"He's not coming back this time, trust me," muttered Harry as he scanned the article. At the bottom of the page, there was a small box with the words, "Is You-Know-Who Really Dead? See Article on Page 3." He shook his head in annoyance.
"And how do you know that?" asked Kingsley, still sounding casual. At his wand's behest, the omelet rose in the pan, flipped over, and floated down into the pan again.
Harry sighed lightly. "It's a long story."
"I may be the Minister now, but my time is your time. Coffee?"
"Yes, thanks. Is that why you came here? To find out about that?"
Kingsley shook his head as he caused a pot of coffee to tip over and pour its contents into a mug, which then floated to where Harry was sitting. "I wasn't thinking about that particularly, but it does seem like a good thing for people to know. It would be helpful if everyone had the same confidence in that as you do."
Harry glanced up at Kingsley, whose attention had returned to cooking. He could see Kingsley's point, but didn't feel like answering just then. He opened the paper, scanning headlines and parts of articles. "Hogwarts: Scene of the Final Battle," read one, with pictures of the damage to the castle. A few students were also pictured, including Neville, whom Harry noticed was mentioned prominently in the article.
There was silence as Harry read, until an omelet, toast, sausage, and bacon had converged on plates in front of Harry; Kingsley sat down in front of his own food. "Thanks," said Harry as he took a bite of the toast.
"Cooking's always been a little hobby of mine, partly out of necessity, being single." After another pause during which both worked on their food, Kingsley spoke again.
"Okay, now that I don't have to concentrate on cooking the food, I will actually answer some of your questions," he said, with an expression that was a mild apology for his earlier evasiveness. "I'm here to talk to you, as much for your sake as for mine. As for breakfast, it was just a humorous pretext, though in a way, the Minister of Magic preparing your breakfast is somehow appropriate symbolically, a gesture of thanks for all you've done."
"It's not as though you didn't do anything," Harry pointed out.
"True, and that's why I'm now the Minister of Magic," agreed Kingsley. "But you're the one who killed Voldemort. As you may have noticed from the Prophet, you're considered a hero, and that may be understating the case."
Before Kingsley could continue, Harry muttered, "I don't feel like a hero."
"You probably do, actually. In heroic sagas, the hero is usually too worn out from what he's done to really enjoy it. He just wants to live a normal life." Kingsley seemed to be able to tell from Harry's expression that Harry was surprised, as if Kingsley had read his mind.
"I thought everyone loved the hero, and he got married and lived happily ever after," said Harry, suddenly thinking of Ginny. He then pushed the thought aside; that was something he couldn't think about now, either.
"I should have said, good heroic sagas," allowed Kingsley. "The more simplistic ones don't take into account the toll that what he did takes on the hero. Life is always more complicated than 'and they all lived happily ever after.'" The tone hadn't changed, but Kingsley's eyes revealed his concern.
"Anyway," continued Kingsley after a few more bites of food, "Even apart from that, there will be aspects of this, both good and bad, that you need to understand. First of all, people are going to want a piece of you. I mean, to some extent, that's always been the case, but it'll be much more so now. Not only ordinary people who want to touch and thank Harry Potter, Defeater of Voldemort—" Having spoken the last five words in a humorously pompous way, Kingsley broke into a small grin at Harry's annoyed expression, then continued, "You'll hear stronger praise than that, so you'd better start getting used to it.
"As I was saying, not only that, but you'll be an irresistible commodity to people who are looking out for their own interests, not yours. Kind of like Scrimegour wanting you to do Ministry public relations for him, but much more. Especially politicians and businesspeople will want to be associated with you. Some inventor will accost you, show you or tell you about some idea he's come up with, and ask you to be his partner. He'll offer to make you a 50-50 partner with no investment from you, just your name on the product, or doing some promotion for it. And even if you say no, a comment like "That sounds nice" could be misrepresented in an ad. 'Endorsed by Harry Potter!'"
This lecture was doing nothing for Harry's mood. "Well, at least I have some experience with this kind of thing," he said resignedly.
"True, but especially since Voldemort came back, you've been more or less sheltered from it by your protection, the need to keep you safe. That's no longer an issue, though one thing I wanted to say was that far from every Death Eater is dead, and I've no doubt that they'd love to be the one to finish off the man who killed their leader. Not to mention that they, too, might hold out some hope that he could yet come back."
With a very sour expression, Harry responded, "So, not only do I have to be careful of Death Eaters who want to get back at me, but also of people who want to use me to get something for themselves." Kingsley nodded, with a 'sorry, but yes,' expression. "Great. Anything else I should watch out for?" Harry was beginning to feel that there was a reason that he didn't feel quite right.
"Actually, yes, but it's not all bad," Kingsley hastened to point out. "People will stop you in the street to thank you, tell you how appreciative they are—"
"That's a good thing?" Harry asked in disbelief. "That's also been happening all my life, well, since I came to Hogwarts, and I've never been all that thrilled with—"
"This is different, Harry," interrupted Kingsley sternly. "This time, you've really done something to deserve it."
Harry raised his eyebrows a little, as if it hadn't occurred to him that way. "I know how you feel about that," continued Kingsley. "But it really is different this time, and you need to take that into account. Before, you probably just looked at people as if they were a bit loopy, and I can understand why. But now, they're thrilled, excited. You killed their oppressor, helped set them free, especially the Muggle-borns. You'll be a hero to everyone, but especially to them. You have to understand that. You don't have to sit down and have the drink with them that they'll offer to buy you, but you should just say thank you politely, and appreciate their enthusiasm. You do deserve that.
"Anyway, my main point was to make sure you recognized the pitfalls that you'll probably be facing. At least for a while, you'd do well to be suspicious of anyone who seems to want to be your friend who wasn't your friend before." With a small smile, he added, "Especially politicians."
That got a tiny smile out of Harry. "Like you."
"If you think I wanted this job, Harry, then you're not thinking very hard." He cut off Harry's incipient protest, adding, "I know you didn't think that, I was just joking. This is the last thing I ever wanted to do, but I'm stuck with it, at least for a while. While you were doing whatever it was you were doing, I was helping lead the resistance. Not that we were getting anywhere, but we had to try. So, I was the logical choice to be Minister; everyone who worked in the Ministry was tainted, by having worked in the former regime. Not that you were automatically a Death Eater if you did, but we're going to be spending some time working out who was a little too enthusiastic in cooperating with Thicknesse and his Death Eater controllers. The Minister had to be someone with totally clean hands."
"Did other Aurors help you?" asked Harry, suddenly curious. He realized that there were a lot of stories about the resistance that he didn't know, and would probably be hearing.
"Some, like Hestia and Tonks, of course, and a few others you don't know. But that's a problem too. Some Aurors cooperated with the old government more than I would have liked, so we have to decide what to do about that. It won't be easy, either with the Aurors, or with society in general."
Harry didn't react much to what Kingsley said. He could see what Kingsley meant—it seemed as though some people from seventeen years ago, like Lucius Malfoy, had been let off too lightly—but it didn't interest him much. "I guess I don't envy you."
"Nor do I," agreed Kingsley. "Obviously this doesn't involve you much, but it's good for you to know what's going on. The important thing to understand is that our society isn't just going to continue on like nothing ever happened. It was damaged, and will take time to repair. If things don't go well, it could get worse before it gets better. And I hate to say it, because I know how you'll feel—" Harry's instant reaction to this was to think that nobody could know how he felt—"but there may be things you can do to help."
Harry was now sure he understood. "And that's why you're here."
"Don't be so cynical, Harry. I made you breakfast, after all." Kingsley regarded him with slightly raised eyebrows and understated humor. Saying nothing, Harry looked at Kingsley expectantly. "No, not really. Not as such. I'm here to make you aware of some things I think you should be aware of, and that is just one of them. But it would have been disingenuous of me to talk to you and not tell you that."
"All right, Kingsley," said Harry, a little more sharply than he meant to, "what is it you want me to do, for the good of society?"
Harry wasn't sure, but thought he saw mild disappointment with his attitude in Kingsley's eyes. "For now, nothing more than that you come to the Ministry sometime in the next week and accept an Order of Merlin, First Class."
"Do I have to?"
Kingsley couldn't help but chuckle; Harry realized that he probably sounded like a kid trying to beg off doing chores. "My, you are a hard sell. No, you don't have to, but it wouldn't look good if you didn't. This is another thing you're not going to like hearing, but it really is a serious thing: you are probably the most famous person in wizarding society right now, and you may well be all your life. You need to consider how the things you do will look. Turning down the government's highest honor would not look good."
Harry stared at his plate for a moment as he ate the last of his food. "Okay, I'll do it. But I'm not going to live my life worrying about how every last thing I do will look to people. I'm going to be who I am, and if they like me, that's fine, and if they don't, that's fine, too." He looked up at Kingsley defiantly.
"I wouldn't expect anything else of you," Kingsley said. "We've all seen how stubborn you can be. Look, you can feel free to ignore my advice. But I assure you that I have nothing but the best intentions in giving it to you."
Harry could tell that Kingsley was telling the truth, and was suddenly embarrassed by his own behavior. Not meeting Kingsley's eyes, he nodded his understanding.
Kingsley nodded as well. "I know it's been hard for you, Harry, and I do sympathize. I might sympathize more if it weren't for the fact that right now, I have it much worse than you do. Tell you what, how'd you like this job? You can have it right now, if you want it."
Kingsley grinned as Harry finally laughed a little. "No way!" The smile slowly faded as he thought about it. "I do get your point, and I agree you have it worse. I guess it just doesn't make me any happier with what you've told me."
Both had finished eating; Kingsley stood to collect the dishes and put them into the sink. "Understandable. So, where are you going to live? I suppose, here for the time being?"
Harry shrugged. "I've been asleep most of the time since I left Hogwarts, so—"
"You haven't even begun to think about that," finished Kingsley. "Sorry, should've known that. Well, you can look at it this way: whatever happens from now won't be as hard as what you've already done."
"From everything you've said, I'm not so sure," muttered Harry. "How about for you?"
"Oh, I was on the run for a while, and without the benefit of an Invisibility Cloak," he added with a grin, "but I think being Minister will be a lot harder. Give me a few months, I'll be complaining to you about how hard my life is."
With a humorless chuckle, Harry nodded. "Then why did you accept the job?"
"As I said before, I was the perfect choice—" Kingsley cut himself off as he saw Harry about to interrupt. "Yes, I know, it sounds like I'm not answering the question, but I am. Maybe I can put it another way: society needed me to do what I did, until yesterday. Society needs me now, too, just in a different way." Kingsley looked at Harry significantly as he answered, and Harry clearly understood the unspoken words: society needs you, too.
Harry reflexively avoided addressing the topic. "Oh, don't bother with the dishes, I'll do them, or have Kreacher—where is he, come to think of it? Kreacher?" he shouted.
With the usual loud popping noise, Kreacher suddenly appeared a few feet in front of Harry. "Master! Master is awake—" He cut himself off as he looked, horrified, at the rest of the kitchen. "Master has not cooked!" He appeared scandalized. "Master must always call Kreacher for food!" His eyes were pleading, obviously hoping that Harry had not lowered himself to do jobs fit for house-elves.
"No, don't worry, Kreacher. Kingsley cooked me breakfast. He just came over and did it, when I woke up. How did you know when to come, anyway?"
"I came a few hours ago, and you were still sleeping. I did the usual wake-up sensor spell." Harry looked at him quizzically. "Hmmm, I guess they don't teach that at Hogwarts. I've always thought Hogwarts should have a home-economics course; there are a lot of useful household spells they don't teach there. You should ask Molly to teach you. You leave the spell on someone when they're sleeping, and you feel a kind of tapping in your head when they wake up."
"Ah." Noting Kreacher's confusion regarding Kingsley, Harry explained. "Kreacher, I'm sure you've seen Kingsley around here before. He's the Minister of Magic now."
Kreacher offered Kingsley a perfunctory bow before turning back to Harry. "Minister Kingsley cannot replace Kreacher!"
Harry and Kingsley both laughed. "No, I couldn't," agreed Kingsley. "Don't worry, Kreacher, I didn't plan to make a habit of it." Mumbling to himself, Kreacher shuffled toward the sink, conjured a tall stool, and started washing dishes, Summoning the pots and pans from their places on the stove.
"Well, I'll be getting back," said Kingsley. "Harry, I'll be saying this again next week when I give you the award, but thank you for what you did. I'd really like to hear the story sometime."
Harry nodded. "Good luck at the Ministry."
"I'll need it," responded Kingsley. He left the kitchen, and a few seconds later, Harry heard the familiar sound of the fireplace lighting up, and Kingsley saying, "Ministry, Atrium."
Harry leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a minute, trying not to think about anything in particular. He opened them and glanced at Kreacher washing the dishes. It felt strange to be in the house alone with Kreacher, though he supposed it might be that way, at least for a while. He knew that if he wanted to avoid Kreacher, he could; house-elves didn't usually make pests of themselves to their masters. He realized that a lot of things were going to seem strange from now on. Life had changed, and he would have to get used to it.
He didn't leave Grimmauld Place for the rest of the day, and somewhat to his surprise, he had no further visitors. He had wondered whether Ron or Hermione would visit, not that he had any particular desire for company. It had occurred to him that only Order members could visit him, since only they had been told of the secret in the proper way. Curious, he had asked Kreacher what had happened when Yaxley had appeared in the fireplace; Kreacher responded that he had touched Yaxley, Apparated him out, then quickly returned. No other Death Eaters, or any other unauthorized people, had returned to the house. Harry knew this meant that he alone, as the owner of the house, was the Secret-Keeper after Dumbledore's death, and therefore Hermione's concerns had been groundless, and they could have lived in the comfort and safety of Grimmauld Place for all those months. He felt annoyance with Hermione for being overly cautious (and wrong, unusually for her), but he supposed in retrospect that being extra cautious had not been unreasonable.
The only other contact he had with the outside world was to notice several letters in a neat pile in a corner of the living room. Kreacher explained that this house, and most wizarding houses, had chutes on the roof that owls could drop letters into, and they would land in the same place. Harry had looked at a few; they were mostly letters thanking him and expressing admiration for his defeat of Voldemort. One of them brought his mood down; it was the official notice of the place and time of Fred's funeral. Well, at least I got one day's break, he thought, then was ashamed of himself for regarding going to a friend's funeral as an annoyance. It was not the funeral exactly, he knew; it was all the people who would be there, who he would be expected to talk to. He still wasn't sure why the idea disturbed him so much; he tried not to think about it as he lay in bed that night. After two hours of reading and trying to sleep, he finally succeeded.
The voice was a whisper. Harry wasn't sure he had really heard it while he was drifting to consciousness, but now that he was awake, he was sure. "What?" he asked. "Who is this?"
The voice sounded familiar, yet not enough for Harry to identify it. It was wispy and fragile, as if a gust of wind could blow it away. Fully awake now, Harry reached for the wand under his pillow. "Who's there?" he asked aggressively, pointing the wand around the room, ready for something to jump out.
He was facing away from the bed when he heard the voice behind him, now a more normal tone, though still a little different in tone from most voices, and more familiar. "Blimey, you're touchy." Harry spun around to see a ghost hovering over his bed, grinning at him.
Harry's mouth hung open. "Fred??"
"Can't a ghostie have a little fun without wands getting pointed at him?" asked Fred with mock surprise. "Yes, very good. I reckon one bad thing about my current situation is that no one's going to have trouble telling one from the other. Okay, the ear thing was a giveaway, but from an angle, there could have been some doubt. But now, you'd have to be incredibly thick… even the voice is different, isn't it?"
Still digesting this, Harry numbly nodded.
"Yeah, I'd always wondered why ghosts can even speak, for that matter," mused Fred. "I mean, we shouldn't be able to, should we, if we're insubstantial? Touch, taste, and smell don't work, but hearing, sight, and speaking do? What bloody sense does that make?" After a short pause, Fred continued, "Sorry, I do ramble. So, happy to see me? I assume you are, judging from your ebullient reaction and warm welcome." With slightly raised eyebrows, Fred waited for a response.
Harry was looking through Fred at the headboard of the bed, slowly recovering from his shock. "Sorry, it's just… the last thing I expected. But of course, I'm happy to see you." He reached out as if to touch Fred, but quickly withdrew the hand, suddenly remembering.
Fred nodded, with a superior expression. "Right, you remembered, I did just say it. Touch not working so well, but I appreciate the sentiment."
"Why did you come back?"
Fred tilted his head, with an expression that agreed that it was a fair question. "For George, of course. Poor bloke is despondent without me. Putting on a brave face, naturally. I haven't visited him yet, I wonder if he thinks I reneged."
Fred's expression became a little more serious. "Before the battle, we promised each other that if we died, we'd come back to help out the other one. I can still help out at the shop. Can't accept money, of course, but I can answer inquiries, show customers new items, things like that."
"Wouldn't that make people nervous? I mean, you usually don't see ghosts in shops. Some people aren't comfortable around them."
"They haven't seen me yet," retorted Fred. "Most ghosts are miserable and gloomy. I'll be cheerful and friendly."
"Fred the Friendly Ghost," Harry said, thinking aloud.
"Nothing, just a Muggle comic I remembered. So, why haven't you visited George yet?" Harry sat on the bed as Fred assumed a horizontal position near the surface of the bed, as if to try to sleep. Fred simulated a yawn and stretched, making Harry grin.
"I would have already, but as it turns out, there's a sort of… committee, you could say, some old ghosts that meet the new arrivals and fill them in on the rules. Never been one for rules, of course, but I did listen. Evidently one of the rules is that you shouldn't appear to the people who knew you for about a week or so after you snuff it. They say it's not decent, and I guess I can see what they mean. If I suddenly popped in on Mum, she'd probably just start crying even harder. I debated seeing George, but decided against it for now."
"But you decided to wake me up," observed Harry.
Fred zoomed up from the bed toward Harry, stopping only a few inches from his face; startled, Harry involuntarily stepped back. "You're special," intoned Fred solemnly. He projected himself forward again, going through Harry's body and out his back. Harry turned around quickly to see a look of surprise on Fred's translucent face. "That was brilliant!" giggled Fred, who proceeded to do it again, rushing through Harry's torso again and again.
Harry felt as though a cool draft was moving through his body. "Will you stop that," he said, raising his voice, and finally stepping aside, causing Fred to stop.
"Oh, you're no fun," pouted Fred.
"Sorry, I just don't fancy having a cool breeze in my innards. By the way, you being here makes me wonder, why aren't there ghosts in more places? I mean, I know Muggles can't see them, but I never see them in Diagon Alley, or some parts of Hogwarts, like the dormitories or classrooms. Why is that?"
Fred had been darting about the room while Harry was talking, and came to a stop directly above Harry, forcing Harry to look up at him. "That was explained by the old farts, too. Hey, too bad ghosts can't fart, bet that would be really something. I'd never thought about it, but apparently there's a spell that keeps out those of the ghostly persuasion—I'm going to have to come up with another phrase… how about 'bodily challenged?—anyway, it keeps them, us, from going to those places. It seems Hogwarts is the big social club for the white wispies."
Harry chuckled. "How many different words for 'ghost' are you going to try to think of?"
"My lad, I've barely begun," said Fred pompously.
"I'll bet. Say… now that I think about this, I feel like I should have asked one of the Hogwarts ghosts, but… what happens when you die?"
"Well," responded Fred thoughtfully, seemingly trying to remember, "you're met by a large bunny rabbit who tells you that you have to jump onto his back—he's easily four meters long—and he tells you that you're going to Hop to Heaven. But if you fall off—"
"Fred, c'mon," interrupted Harry, "I'm serious."
"A bit too serious, if you ask me. Lighten up, Harry, have a laugh. You've defeated the most powerful wizard in the world, it's time to turn over a new leaf. Life is too short. Hey, that's good. 'Life is too short,'" he repeated. "I must use that. Certainly nobody can argue with it."
"So, you're not going to answer my question." After he said it, Harry realized that he'd done the same thing to Kingsley, so maybe it wasn't fair to push Fred.
"All right, Harry, since it seems important to you. But this is privileged. Anything I say to you that isn't a joke, you're not to repeat to a single person. Agreed?"
"Come to think of it, don't repeat the jokes, either. I don't want them getting around before I've had a chance to use them with everyone."
Fred floated in front of Harry, at eye level. "It takes you a minute to realize that you're dead, it's kind of disorienting. I sort of looked around for a minute, then I saw this light in the distance. It was very powerful, like it had gravity. I started moving towards it, without thinking, but I noticed something else. There seemed to be another passage, this one kind of 'down,' even though it wasn't really up or down. I got the sense of ghosts being there, and I realized that this was the decision point. If you go towards the light, you don't come back, and I'm sure that's what most people do. There's a natural attraction to it, and it takes a real effort, an effort of will, to take the other path. At least for me. I think ghosts are often sad because the ones who died with, I don't know, emotional problems, or like Myrtle, who're loony as a fruit bat, they find it easier to come back. They feel like they're not done yet, but the trick is, I think, that they're never going to be. That's what they have to work out, and when they do, the light is always there for them. I can sense it, even now."
Harry was solemn. "I think if you explained this to George, he wouldn't stand in your way, of doing that."
"I know," agreed Fred, still serious. It occurred to Harry that he had never seen Fred talk in a serious way for so long a time. "But I do want to help him, and the rest of the family, but especially him. We've always been such a team, this is hard for him. That light isn't going anywhere. I can still go whenever I want. But why not hang around here for a while."
"In my room?" joked Harry.
Fred grinned. "Sorry. Pleasant as that would be for you, I do have other things to do. But I will look in on you from time to time. Maybe try to get you a sense of humor."
"Good luck. I don't feel very humorous these days."
"So I noticed. But there is one thing that you and I have in common," said Fred, the mischief returning to his tone.
All right, I'll bite, thought Harry. "What's that?"
"Let's leave that as a little riddle for now," replied Fred mysteriously. "I'll take my leave, roam the countryside a bit, and see you at the funeral. But you won't see me, and not a word to anyone."
"I promise," agreed Harry. "Have fun."
"I always do," Fred assured him. "Sorry, can't resist, one last one…" He plunged through Harry's stomach again; Harry turned just in time to see him zip through the wall.
Alone again, Harry shook his head in amazement. Fred the Friendly Ghost… he hoped that the other Weasleys would be happy to see Fred; he supposed it took the edge off the grief he felt at Fred's death. Remembering what Fred had said near the end of the conversation, he wondered if he would ever be able to hear the word 'riddle' without thinking of Tom Riddle. Probably not, he thought.
Now fully awake, he got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. As he ate, he glanced at Kreacher doing his chores, and wondered what he'd be doing for food if he didn't have a house-elf. Probably eating at the Burrow, he thought. It occurred to him that there must be wizarding supermarkets, but he had no idea how they worked, or where they were. It couldn't be the case that wizards all went to Muggle supermarkets; he was sure that it would be beneath the Slytherin, pure-blood types.
He picked up the Prophet and read. "Government Still In Chaos" was the headline; he didn't think that was fair to Kingsley, who hadn't had much time to get control of the situation. The article said that there were many in the Ministry who resented Kingsley's sudden and rapid ascent to power, and were throwing obstacles in his path by failing to promptly follow his instructions or discovering reasons why they couldn't, or ensnaring him in bureaucratic red tape. Kingsley's right, thought Harry as he read. He has it worse than I do.
A secondary article on the front page reported that Kingsley had initiated procedures for bringing to justice those who had helped Voldemort. Known Death Eaters, or anyone who had been seen wearing Death Eater robes, were to be immediately arrested, as would anyone seen by three or more reliable witnesses performing one of the Unforgivable curses. Harry winced slightly, recalling his use of the Cruciatus Curse at Hogwarts; he didn't think that the Wizengamot would see retaliation for spitting in someone's face as sufficient cause to use that curse. Fortunately, he thought, there were only two witnesses who would be considered reliable, though he doubted they would prosecute him anyway, or that Luna or McGonagall would raise the issue.
His attention having drifted from the article he was reading, Harry returned his attention to it. Beyond the criteria already mentioned, no firm benchmarks had been laid down for further prosecutions. The article went on to say that the Ministry would soon be debating them, but that it was a sensitive issue, as many in the Ministry itself had followed morally suspect orders from those who took their orders from Voldemort. Kingsley had made it known that next under consideration was prosecution of those who had aided in the persecution of Muggle-borns, whose full legal rights and status had already been restored. Harry felt a savage pleasure as he imagined what would happen to Umbridge. If she spends the rest of her life in Azkaban, he thought, she deserves it.
He read for a while longer, then walked out to the living room and noticed with a wince that the pile of mail had gotten much larger. What am I going to do if this keeps up, he wondered. His mind wandered to the notion of owl-ordering things—there were no interesting books at Grimmauld Place, he had discovered—and then to money. How did Kreacher live? Was there money stashed in the house that was for him to buy things, if only for his own food? So many things he still didn't know about the wizarding world. I should buy a book on house-elves, he thought.
Still, he would need money at some point, and the last thing he fancied was a trip to Gringotts. Not only did he not want to be out and about in public, but he suspected that after breaking into a top-security vault, to the goblins, he was probably Undesirable No. 1. He opened his mouth, almost shouted 'Dobby,' then realized his mistake. I wish it were Dobby, he thought.
With a sudden pop, Kreacher was there. "Master Harry?"
"Kreacher, I'd like you to get money out of my Gringotts vault."
Kreacher's eyes went wide. "Master?"
Harry was surprised by Kreacher's response. "Is it possible? I mean, they know you're my house-elf. Will they let you in to do it?"
Kreacher still looked bewildered. "Yes, Master Harry, Kreacher believes they will… take security precautions, but allow Kreacher in."
"Then what's the problem?"
"They will be… surprised. It is very rare for a wizard to allow his servant to… fetch gold for him." The last four words were said in an especially awed tone.
Harry almost asked why, but realized he could guess: having gold made people feel important, and they didn't want to entrust the handling of something so valuable to a lowly house-elf, reliable as they might be. "Well, Kreacher, you'll find that since I wasn't raised by a wizarding family, there's a lot of things about what's normally done that I don't know. Can you think of any reason why I shouldn't do it?"
Kreacher thought for a moment. "No, Master."
"Okay, then. Just get the money, bring it back here, and I'll decide what to do with it. There must be someplace I can put it," he added, half to himself. I should get one of those things Hermione had, those bags that you can put everything but the kitchen sink into. I have to ask her where she bought it. "Anyway, just go ahead, and let me know when you're back."
Kreacher bowed low. "As Master says," he agreed, and Disapparated.
Harry found himself thinking more about what to spend money on, what money could be spend on, without actually going out. His thoughts were interrupted by fire erupting from the fireplace; he looked over to see Ron stepping out, then walking toward Harry. "Hi."
Feeling a sudden surge of affection, Harry surprised himself by walking over and hugging Ron. He could feel Ron's surprise, but Ron returned the hug and let go. With a quizzical expression, Ron asked, "What was that for?"
Harry gestured Ron to the sofa, and they sat. "I'm not even sure," he said with a shrug. "I just… I don't know, I've been alone for the past two days, and… I never really thanked you, you and Hermione, for what you did."
Ron shook his head. "Thank Hermione. She did much more than I did."
"Do I have to remind you that you saved my life?"
"Oh, yeah," said Ron, as if just remembering. "Well, she did too. Anyway, don't worry, I'll probably remind you for the rest of your life."
Harry chuckled. "Whatever you want. So, what's up?"
"Just wanted to see how you were doing. You said you'd been alone, so why didn't you come over?"
"I can't really explain. It's like… it's good to see you, and Hermione if she came, but I just don't feel like being around a lot of people right now, and I'll bet the Burrow is pretty active. And I wouldn't know what to say anyway." Harry wished he could tell Ron about Fred's ghost.
Ron nodded. "I know they'd appreciate just your being there, but I'm sure they'd understand needing to be alone. But I assume you'll be over tomorrow, for the funeral." Harry looked down and nodded, saying nothing. There was silence as Ron seemed to be thinking of something to say. "So, what were you doing when I got here?"
Harry gestured to the stack of mail. "Wondering how I was going to read, never mind answer, all that."
"Bet half of them are asking for interviews," suggested Ron. "We've gotten a half dozen owls asking the same thing."
"People want to know what happened," said Ron; Harry thought from Ron's tone that Ron thought he should talk about it, but he wasn't sure. "They know the Hogwarts part, of course, what you said to You-Know—" Ron interrupted himself in response to Harry's sharp glance. "You ever say 'You-Know-Who' again, and I'll go find the Elder Wand and hex you with it."
Ron rolled his eyes. "I'm so scared," he retorted, in a gently mocking tone. "Anyway, give me a break, it's just a habit. I know he's dead—"
"And he's not coming back," said Harry firmly.
"I heard you told Kingsley that. When did you talk to him, anyway?" Harry described Kingsley's visit, and asked how Ron had heard that. "It was in the most recent interview request owl. It said Kingsley had said publicly that you'd said he wasn't coming back—"
"Who isn't coming back?" Harry prompted Ron meaningfully.
"Anybody ever tell you that you can be a pain in the ass?" Ron paused, sighed, and finally said, "All right, if it'll make you happy, V- V-… wow, it's hard to say the name, such a habit…" Ron seemed to summon all his willpower. "Voldemort's not coming back. Are you happy now? Am I to be spared your merciless retaliation?"
"We'll see," said Harry with a small smile. "Anyway, Kingsley said…"
"He was quoted as saying, 'I talked to Harry Potter about this, and he said, "Voldemort's not coming back this time, trust me." He was very confident, and if anyone would know, he would.' The reporter, I think from Witch Weekly, wanted me and Hermione to confirm it, and to say how you knew. Hermione sent them back an owl—not that it'll do any good, they'll keep on asking—but she said that it was your story, and the first words said about it publicly would be said by you, that she and I weren't going to comment."
Harry again felt a surge of affection. "Thanks."
"Her idea," Ron said offhandedly.
"But you agreed."
"Like I had a choice, you know how she is." Harry chuckled. "I mean, I would talk to them, but I don't care that much one way or the other. Are you going to?"
Harry himself wasn't sure why he was so reluctant. "I guess I feel like I felt at the Hog's Head, or giving that Skeeter interview, in fifth year. I don't feel like I want, or need, to make my life completely public. That's been done to me more than enough already. He's gone, Kingsley told them what I said, that should be enough." He found that he resented Kingsley slightly for repeating he'd said—for repeating anything he said—without telling Harry he was going to do so. I don't want to have to watch what I say around him, thought Harry, but now that he's a politician, maybe I'll have to. "Besides, who's to say that if I gave the whole story, people would believe me? Or that they wouldn't still believe that he might come back?"
"I guess I can see that," Ron agreed. "You definitely have long experience of people not believing what you say." Harry grunted, remembering the reaction when he had talked about Voldemort's return. "They'd probably believe you now, though, after what happened. Not that I'm saying you should," he added hastily. "Obviously, that's up to you."
Harry almost gave a sarcastic response like 'that's very good of you,' but held back at the last second, recognizing that Ron was trying to be considerate. He nodded, then to change the subject, said, "I guess things are kind of grim at the Burrow."
Ron nodded, and Harry could see the sorrow on his face. "It's still hard to believe he's gone. We all feel really bad, but especially for George, of course. They were such a team…" They were silent for a minute, and Ron spoke again. "Anyway, Mum's just trying to keep busy, I think. Finally able to return to the Burrow the day before yesterday, she's been moving things from Aunt Muriel's—she wouldn't say it directly, since Muriel let them stay, but I think she's really sick of Muriel by now, I know I would be." Recalling Muriel's behavior at Bill and Fleur's wedding, Harry couldn't help but think that being on the run was preferable. "She's been setting things up at home, so she's busy, and that's good for her. She's got us all helping, of course, giving instructions every few minutes to do this or do that. I took the opportunity when no one happened to be in the living room to pop over here."
"Is Hermione there?
"Yes, she was thinking about going back to Hogwarts, but it's in a real state, with the damage it took during the battle, so she decided to come to the Burrow. I feel kind of bad for her, she doesn't have a home now, since she had to send her family to Australia." Noting Harry's expression, Ron added, "C'mon, don't feel bad about that. It was her decision, our decision, to go with you, and she did what she had to do to protect her family. She can always bring them back, modify their memories again, if she wants to. She knows that, but she's not sure what she's going to do yet. It's so soon after everything that happened, I think she needs to get used to the new situation now."
"I can really understand that," said Harry emphatically.
"I guess you feel the same way. Yeah, everything is really different now. I also feel bad for Hermione about the N.E.W.T.s, since that was always so important to her—"
"I know that, Ron," Harry interrupted him sharply. "I didn't ask—"
"I know you didn't! Blimey, can't a guy say anything?" Harry wanted to retort, but held his tongue. "I reckon I'd better never say anything about what happened at Malfoy Manor, or you'll really go off the deep end." Even angrier, Harry again bit his lip not to respond. "Look, Harry, get this through your head. She decided, we decided—"
"You're not acting like it! We knew there would be consequences of helping you do that, possibly including death. Look, she got tortured, and…" Harry could see Ron trying to keep emotion off his face, and mostly failing. "When someone you love gets tortured like that, it feels like it's happening to you too. It's horrible. But I don't blame you for that, she doesn't blame you—"
"Even though it was my saying 'Voldemort' that got us there in the first place?" Saying it out loud brought back more regret than he would have guessed; he realized that he'd been so busy after that happened, and grieving for Dobby, that he'd shoved it to the back of his mind. But now it hit him full force, and regret and self-hate washed over him; because of his carelessness, a traumatic event had happened to Hermione, and Dobby was dead. In that instant, he felt he would give anything to change what had happened.
"It was a mistake, Harry. We all make them. You want to know how many times I beat myself up over leaving you guys? You still blame me for that?" Having clearly gotten his answer from Harry's face, Ron went on. "I didn't think so. Well, we don't blame you, either. But my point was that everything we did was our choice. You did what you had to do, well, so did we. You're not the only Gryffindor around here, you know."
Harry knew Ron was right; it was just such a reflex to blame himself. He sighed. "So, I guess I'm being kind of self-centered, then, huh?" he asked, not totally sure whether or not he was being sarcastic.
"Well, it'd be understandable. You are the Chosen One, after all." Ron only smiled after Harry's annoyance was clear. "There's another thing I'll hex you for, if you keep it up."
Ron chuckled. "Well, with all these threats, I must be doing something right. No, I wasn't going to keep it up anyway, it's too much of a Malfoy thing. 'That Harry Potter, thinks he's the Chosen One.' Funny thing is, you were the Chosen One. But the thing most people don't get is that being Chosen isn't all its cracked up to be."
"Everyone wants to hear the story, Kingsley says," muttered Harry. "But no one in his right mind would want to live it."
"Malfoy might," offered Ron. "But then, he's not really in his right mind."
"You really think he would?"
Ron shrugged. "Hermione thinks so. She once said, last summer I think, that Malfoy always taunted you that you liked the publicity and recognition because it made him angry, that he would have liked it. But you never acted like you liked it, so Hermione thinks he was putting his feelings onto you."
Harry smiled a little. "Sometimes I think Hermione thinks too much."
Ron laughed. "Only now you're realizing this? Wow, you're slow."
There was a short silence; Harry was thinking about Malfoy and his actions over the past year or two. Ron surprised him by mentioning the same topic. "So what do you think is the deal with Malfoy now? Is he, well, he's not good, but is he, you know, less bad? I was surprised you saved him at Hogwarts. Well, not too surprised, I know you, but you know what I mean."
Harry nodded his understanding. "I do. It was, I guess, one of those things you do when you have no time to think. Even though he was, you know, Malfoy, it seemed wrong to let him die when I could stop it. As for your question, I don't know. But I know Dumbledore had hopes for him, and that may have influenced me. Malfoy was heading down his father's path, and Dumbledore hoped to stop that, and asked Snape to help him stop it. Once you kill, there's no going back from that. Malfoy probably sees himself as a victim because he and his family suffered a lot at Voldemort's hands in the past year, since that business with the prophecy. But if they hadn't been leaning in that direction anyway, they wouldn't have been in that position. It's like they rolled the dice, and lost." Harry thought for a minute. "But I'd guess that Malfoy himself isn't sure whether he's good or not. If he thinks he is, well, it's kind of relative."
"I guess it's a different thing entirely from just calling people 'Mudblood,' which he probably thinks is reasonable," agreed Ron. "Well, if I never have to deal with the git again, I'll be quite happy."
As Ron spoke the last sentence, another letter fell down the mail chute, landing on top of the neatly arranged pile; Harry supposed Kreacher straightened them out every now and then. Harry wondered whether it was normal house-elf behavior, or special service because Harry had accomplished what was his former master's fondest wish.
"Mind if I look through those?" Ron asked. "Not open them, I'm just curious who they're from."
Harry casually waved his assent. "You can open them, for all I care. I've just been avoiding them."
Ron walked over to the mail pile and picked up a handful. Looking at the top one, he opened his mouth in astonishment. "Well, I'll be… Harry, the one that just came… it's from Narcissa Malfoy!"
"Oh, good," moaned Harry sarcastically. "I can't wait to hear it."
"Well, I'm interested," said Ron. With a gesture, he asked to open the letter; Harry nodded.
Ron opened the letter and read. "Harry Potter. As you know, I saved your life that night, a detail that you have seen fit to tell no one. You, not to mention those you care about, are greatly in my debt. I expect you to come to Malfoy Manor at noon tomorrow, carrying no wand—" Ron stopped reading as his eyebrows went up in disbelief.
Harry scoffed. "Yeah, sure, that'll happen."
"…to discuss the matter. I expect that you will inform all, especially the Ministry, of my family's role in the Dark Lord's downfall, and to intercede with the Ministry as necessary. Please reply to confirm your acknowledgment." Ron's mouth was hanging open. "Do you believe the nerve of that woman? She's acting like you're her house-elf!"
Harry could do nothing but shake his head in wonder, and he started to laugh. To Ron's quizzical expression, he shook his head as his laughter faded. "It's just so absurd, there's not much to do but laugh. Well, I actually do want to write her back now. I'm inspired."
With Ron's help, he found paper and writing implements; he didn't know where many things were in the house. He thought of calling Kreacher, but he didn't want to get into the habit of calling him for every little thing. He sat at the desk in the living room and wrote, taking ten minutes. Finishing, he asked Ron, "So, do you want to hear it?"
"Of course," agreed Ron with a grin.
"Okay, here it is. 'Narcissa—' She'll be really ticked that I just use her first name—'I acknowledge receiving your owl, and the fact that you saved my life. I have not forgotten that. I also have not forgotten that you didn't save me until you knew that Draco was back in the castle, making it clear that your motivation was his safety. If your intention was to help bring down Voldemort, you wouldn't have asked me that first. So, let's not pretend that I owe you anything. I don't. If anything, you owe me; I saved Draco's life in the castle before going to the forest, and with no ulterior motive. So if you want to talk to me, you should look at me as an equal, not as a house-elf that you can order around. Sincerely, Harry Potter." With a grin, Harry added, "I got the house-elf idea from you."
"Nice to be part of the process. But good letter, though. I bet steam'll be coming out of her ears. She deserves it, talking to you like that."
"I think her letter was kind of a negotiating position," suggested Harry. "Like, to see if she can get me to see her as being above me. I figured I'd be just as aggressive. But I left open the possibility of meeting her because, even though I said otherwise in the letter, I do feel as though I owe her, at least a little."
"I wondered about that," said Ron. "You told me that Dumbledore said that Pettigrew would owe you a debt for saving him, and it looks like he was right. But does her motivation have anything to do with it? Do you really owe her less if she had other motivations?"
"I'm not sure, to be honest."
"She'll think you have some pull with the Ministry, she'll want you to help get them off, I suppose. Are you willing to do that?"
Harry thought. "Lucius, not a chance. He's done too much. But her and Draco… possible. I don't know. Just as payback, it doesn't seem unreasonable. But I feel like before I said a word on her behalf, I'd want to know for sure that she and Draco wouldn't do again what they did this time."
"You mean, you want them not to be evil. Good luck with that."
"I suppose," sighed Harry. "Well, to hell with it, I'm not going to think about it anymore. Maybe she'll be so offended by my letter that she'll give up."
Ron shook his head. "Let me put it this way. If it's a choice between sucking up to you, and going to Azkaban, I think she'll suck up."
Harry didn't feel like talking about it anymore. "We'll see." A strange thought occurred to him, and he decided to act on it. "Hey, I have an idea. How about a game of chess?"
"Chess?" repeated Ron. His blank look told Harry that was the last thing he'd been expecting. "Yeah, sure. But why that?"
"Because it's ordinary. We've been hunting down Voldemort for the past year, and I miss the idea of doing something that people do when they're sitting around with nothing to do. If that makes any sense."
Ron smiled. "I understand. Yeah, it sounds good. I'll give you a good thrashing, don't worry."
"Oh, no, I'm going to win," said Harry earnestly.
"And why's that?" responded a smug Ron.
"Well, I'm the Chosen One. I can't lose."
Harry grinned as Ron laughed. "Well, seeing as you're the Chosen One, I'll let you Choose black or white, not that it'll do you any good. Don't worry, I'll get the board, I remember where it is from when I was here two years ago."
They played two games, both won by Ron, as they were silent sometimes and chatted about unimportant matters when they did speak. As Harry had expected, it felt good to do nothing important.
About an hour later, Kreacher suddenly Apparated into the living room. "Master Harry, it is finished," he said breathlessly.
"Good, thanks, Kreacher," he said. Kreacher visibly swelled with pride when paid such a direct compliment. "I just realized, I forgot to give an amount. How much did you take out?"
"All of it, Master Harry."
Harry was dumbstruck. "All of it?" It took great self-control for him not to lash out at Kreacher. Still, he couldn't keep the disbelief out of his tone. "Why did you take out all of it?"
"Kreacher is sorry, Master Harry, but it was necessary. House-elves has good hearing, better than goblins think. Goblins went off to talk among themselves. They is angry with Harry Potter. One even suggested harming Harry Potter if he comes to Gringotts." This was said with disgust, as if Kreacher couldn't imagine anything so loathsome. "Others said no, but they was not so sure. Goblins came back, said to Kreacher that Harry Potter should come to Gringotts. Now is adult, must sign papers. Kreacher thinks is not safe for Harry Potter at Gringotts, so Kreacher took out all of Harry Potter's vault."
Harry and Ron exchanged impressed looks. "Wow," said Ron. "They'd be stupid to do it—Wizards wouldn't take kindly to someone, especially you, being treated badly in Gringotts—but it's better not to take the chance. I think Kreacher did the right thing."
"I have to agree." Harry turned to Kreacher. "Kreacher, thank you very much. That was very good thinking." Again, Kreacher's pride was clearly visible. "Now, I have to figure out where I'm going to keep all the gold."
"It is no problem, Master Harry. This house has a secret place in the walls to keep valuable things. Only the owner of the house can open it."
Well, that's convenient, thought Harry. "You mean, a safe?"
Kreacher looked confused. "Yes, Master Harry, it is very safe."
"No, I mean…" Never mind, thought Harry, they may not even have safes in the wizarding world. "Which room is it in?"
"It can be reached from any room," explained Kreacher.
"How do I open it?"
"Master Harry must point his wand at the wall, and say, 'Toujours pur.'"
Harry and Ron exchanged a look. "Naturally," Harry muttered.
He did as Kreacher had instructed, and the wall suddenly seemed to flutter, as if was made of liquid, with a wave rippling through it. A square section of the wall, one side being only slightly less than Harry's height, moved inward in such a way that Harry thought there must be a part of the house sticking out if one looked at it from the outside, yet of course he knew that would not be the case.
What impressed him even more were the very tall, cylindrical containers that were already there. Each was made of what appeared to be gold, and was one foot wide and about three feet high; they reminded Harry of tree stumps. Gold tree stumps, he added to himself. One stacked atop another barely fitted into the space provided, though Harry realized that the space could probably be magically expanded as necessary. There were thirty such containers, along with many loose Galleons, Sickles, and Knuts. Harry glanced at Ron, who was gawking.
"What's in those containers?" Harry asked Kreacher.
"Galleons, Master Harry."
"Whose are they?"
Kreacher looked surprised. "They are yours, Master Harry. They belong to the owner of the house."
"How many in each one?"
"Each one has one hundred thousand Galleons." Ron's mouth fell open; Harry's eyebrows went up. "So, that's…"
Ron was faster with the arithmetic. "Three million Galleons!" he exclaimed.
Harry felt a little embarrassed, especially with Ron there; it wasn't as though he didn't have enough money already. Kreacher seemed unimpressed; he had obviously seen this many times before. "Why didn't they keep this in Gringotts?" asked Harry.
"They kept some Galleons in Gringotts, to keep up appearances," explained Kreacher. "But they did not trust goblins—"
"I'm beginning to identify with them more and more on that," muttered Harry."
"Indeed, Master Harry, Kreacher has never liked goblins," volunteered Kreacher, with obvious disgust. "But today Kreacher discovered how treacherous they truly are." After a pause, Kreacher asked, "Does Master want Kreacher to put his gold here?"
"Um, yeah, sure," agreed Harry; he certainly couldn't think of another place to put it, and he supposed it was safe where it was. "But leave out a few hundred, in case I want to buy something."
"A few hundred Galleons is walking-around money," said Ron, with a neutral expression. "Must be nice."
A frustrated Harry tried to keep his emotions off his face. He knew Ron was sensitive about this, and that Ron was trying not to show the envy he probably felt. He wanted to remind Ron that he hadn't asked for it, but he'd enjoyed Ron's company, and didn't want to get into a fight. "I don't have any idea of what I might buy," he said. "Well, maybe one of those things Hermione had," he added, gesturing to the pouch from which Kreacher was dumping the gold he'd removed from Harry's vault. "That looks pretty convenient." It occurred to Harry that he wouldn't mind looking at some catalogs, to see what kind of things he could buy to make life easier. He would say no such thing to Ron, of course; he intended whatever spending he did to come to the attention of Ron or the Weasleys as little as possible.
Fortunately for Harry, Kreacher soon finished putting away the gold, so he was able to close up the wall, making his money easier to ignore. But Ron still looked put out, annoying Harry further. He couldn't help himself, so he said, "Ron, look at it this way. You know what my family life was like. I had money—though I didn't know I had it—but no real family. You had the opposite. If you could choose to go through my childhood, or yours, which would you choose?"
Ron seemed abashed, though he managed a small smile. "Hermione once, I think it was last year, asked me this exact question. After I said 'mine,' of course, she said something like, you don't hear Harry whining about his terrible childhood, do you? I get the point. It's just…"
He trailed off in embarrassment, but Harry understood. "Not usually staring you in the face like that. I do understand. I've probably had the same thought, like when I looked at a Christmas picture of you and the family, thinking, wow, I wish I could have had that. My Christmases consisted of watching Dudley open presents, hoping maybe I'd get a chance to play with them when he wasn't around."
"Now, now, don't start whining," admonished Ron jokingly.
"I could go on for hours," said Harry. "I never would have thought that I'd be here, seven years later, the hero of the wizarding world," he added, with mock pomposity toward the end of the sentence. "Do I look like a hero?"
"We both do," replied Ron. "We still have all those cuts, from when we got away from Gringotts. I'm kind of hoping one of mine becomes a scar. Then I can say, 'oh, that's the one I got when we got away from Gringotts on the dragon.'"
They talked for another hour before Ron went back to the Burrow. Harry had dinner, and asked Kreacher to gather some owl-order catalogs the next day so he could do some shopping. He doubted he would be able to use three million Galleons, however.
As he tried to drift off to sleep that night, the thought occurred to him that he would have to go back out in public the next day. He didn't look forward to it, but it didn't occur to him to wonder why that was.